Scare tactics and sensationalism don’t work

The problem is that almost everything worth talking about – certainly anything related to sex and sexuality – is probably nuanced.  Scare tactics are black and white.  So too much of the conversation is left out, and the wrong impression can be easily taken away.

The most recent version of this conversation is about a viral video created by Leicester Teenage Pregnancy and Parenthood Partnership.  YouTube keeps taking the video down and it keeps getting put back up again, so here’s one version of it that’s currently available.  If it goes down again, you can go to the hey-babe website, click on the iPhone icon on the bottom of the screen, and watch the Hey Babe – Be Aware, Be Educated video.  And if you’re reading this via e-mail, come on over to my website and actually watch the video!

Now, a couple of things about this video.

First, the birth scene is totally stupid.  Anyone who has ever seen or participated in a birth knows that it takes a long time – it’s not something that suddenly happens on a field with a crowd of screaming people around, because most the screaming people would eventually get bored and wonder off and the rest would chill out.

Second, if the birth process is so horrible that young people are scared into using condoms, their beliefs about birth will be so mutated that if they ever decide they do want to give birth, they might be scared away from doing in naturally (i.e., in the way that is most healthful for both mother and baby).

Third, I’ve shown a lot of young people real birth videos.  Generally they’re pretty amazed by these real births that show loving, gentle births.  Generally they feel pretty firmly afterward that a birth is not something they want to experience any time soon – even if they acknowledge they might eventually want to.

I think it is highly telling that YouTube took this video down.  There are lots of real birth videos up on YouTube that are far more graphic than this one, but far less sensationalistic.  Here’s one example of a real, powerful birth video I often show in classes (it’s particularly cool because it shows the placenta being born towards the end):

Far more graphic, far less sensationalistic, and YouTube keeps it up.  Now, while I may or may not agree with YouTube on any given topic, I am solidly in their court on this one.  Sensationalistic education has got to go.

I remember in drug education in Middle School my class being told that if we took drugs, we would become addicted and die.  Apparently the teacher was under the very incorrect assumption that no one in the class had ever done drugs – or did not know anyone who had done drugs – because otherwise I hope he would have chosen his words more carefully.  We knew that smoking marijuana a couple of times, for example, did not a drug addict make.  The teacher did not bring nuance into his education – so since we knew some of his information to be plain wrong, we collectively ignored everything he had to say.

The same tendency towards absolutes and scare tactics can be true in sexuality education.  When young people hear that unprotected sex leads directly to pregnancy and STDs, they proceed to ignoring everything else the sex educator has to say because that sentence lacks nuance.  Rather, unprotected sex CAN always lead to pregnancy and STDs, but it does not always.  But every time you have unprotected sex might be the time that it does.  And are you willing to take that risk right now?

Birth can be an amazing and powerful experience.  It can also be a degrading and powerless experience.  Suggesting that for teen mothers birth is the second is short-sited and disrespectful.  I am disappointed that a group of my colleages thought this approach was a good idea.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. I got the impression from your description that the first video isn’t something I have any business watching while pregnant, so I didn’t watch it. The second video–wow. I cried when the mother took the baby into her arms and then again when the father did it. How beautiful! And PLENTY real enough to convince teenagers that birth is something they want to POSTPONE–NOT eliminate from their lives altogether.

    (Really, one of my biggest problems with a lot of sex ed is the assumption that these kids will never grow up, they’ll never get into serious relationships as adults, get married, have children, and thus never need information about love and sex and communication and family planning and all of that. Because they will be 16 forever and abstinent forever.)

    (Also? No matter how cool it is to watch–and I’m betting my first child’s birth was the coolest event ever–no one is EVER aiming a camera at my vagina!)

  2. Alice, the first video is most certainly something you shouldn’t watch when you’re pregnant! And your point about the problematic nature of sex ed being aimed only at adolescent sexuality rather than life-long sexuality is so true.

  3. I mean, all cultural diversity aside, most teenagers will grow up to get married and have children. Not saying they have to, or ought to! Just most of them will. And even in the sex-ed-pipe-dream where they’re virgins when they get married, they’ll still need information about sex, how to communicate sexual needs in a loving way, etc., in order to have happy marriages that last a long time. The idea of marriage as a cure-all for love and sex and relationship problems is…how can I say this…dumb…especially given how many marriages are abusive, or even just unhappy, and given the high rate of divorce. Teens need the information before they need it. I think this is one of the most important ideas we have to spread.

    Also, I applaud you for giving your students their first and possibly only exposure to real life childbirth education. That’s worth its weight (7 pounds, 8 ounces) in gold.

  4. As someone who has not yet given birth but who hopes to some day, I’m a little bit ashamed of how uncomfortable the second video made me feel. Birth DOES scare me, and I wish it didn’t, but when I hear women talk about the ring of fire, and see just how large a newborn’s head is, I become a little– queasy almost, imagining it. It is nice to see an image of a woman who isn’t screaming though.

  5. Amanda, birth is super, super intense – and the second video did not pull any punches in showing the intensity of the experience. Viewing someone else in such a personal, intense moment can be uncomfortable. Being in such a situation yourself is very different though. Many women are not prepared for the intensity of the experience of what is then the biggest muscle in your body (your utuerus) contracting without being under your control. The sensation can be a little bit scary – which can cause a women to clench the rest of her muscles, which works against what her uterus is trying to do. Keeping your entire body relaxed and letting your uterus do its work takes complete and total focus and concentration, but is not really what most women know they need to do. The woman in this second video is completely engaged by her birth process, and is moving her body in sync with that process rather than fighting it. I am sure that when you are ready to give birth, you will be able to bring the same attention, focus, and strength to bear in the moment.

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